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The year of the tiger continues…and now we are counting down to China’s thrilling authoritarian Olympics, as well! Stay tuned for some incredible live blogging of the opening ceremonies! Will any nation’s winter parade outfit top Benin’s noble bombas from the summer Olympics? We will find out on Friday. Before we get there, though, I wanted to showcase a piece of tiger art from dynastic China. Classical Chinese scroll painting features all sorts of quintessentially Chinese things: exquisite mountain landscape, trees of otherworldly beauty, all sorts of bustling functionaries, lovely temples, ethereal women, and every variety of realistic animals (not to mention dragons out the wazoo), yet there are precious few tigers–at least until we get to 19th and 20th century art. The handful of tigers that are lurking around in ancient Chinese artwork look kind of flat-headed–like the family cat from the Simpsons. To demonstrate this, here is a really good Ming dynasty tiger painted by an unknown artist.

Oh man, that guy looks grumpy and dangerous. Apparently, in 1404, residents of the Shenhou mountains reported seeing an alarming mythical creature–the zouyou– creeping around the mountains and scaring people. The Prince of Zhou led a party of soldiers and hunters out to capture the creature…and they came back with this white tiger, which they presented to the Yongle Emperor (who had a bestiary filled with exotic and auspicious animals). Since the tiger was held in the Emperor’s court, artists got a chance to look at the living animal (which is perhaps why this work seems like such a leap forward from the fantastic tigers of earlier art).

OK! Over the last dozen years, we have suffered through lots of rats, oxen, and yang-animals, but we have finally busted through to a GRRRRreat year! Happy Lunar New Year 4719–the year of the Water Tiger! Tigers are pretty obviously the best option in the Chinese Zodiac (unless you somehow have a fixation on dragons, which, you know, don’t actually exist…unlike certain stripey & charismatic giant land predators I could name). Of course the question of how much longer the mighty cats will continue to exist in the poacher-filled forests of our used-up planet is a dark question which we will leave for a subsequent post (but which will quietly haunt us as we drive around our land of concrete and garbage). For right now, though, let’s bask in the warm & gentle (and false) glow of friendly horoscope predictions! According to some random website site I found a great oracle of profound wisdom, this tiger year is destined to be a very prosperous year! Also, as in other tiger years, you are extremely likely to personally accomplish noteworthy feats of strength, valor, and exorcism! Usually I would make a joke about casting out evil spirits and malicious sorcery, but not in 2022 er…4719. Even as I write this, I am burning joss sticks, singing Taoist spells, and wearing lucky colors. Let’s cast some of this evil out of the land, for real!

Speaking of lucky colors, the perspicacious sages of ancient China also compiled a handy list of fortunate and auspicious colors for you to wear during this water tiger year. Here is what you should wear (depending on your own horoscope animal of course).

  • Rat: red and blue
  • Ox: red and yellow
  • Tiger: orange, black, and blue
  • Rabbit: green, purple and orange
  • Dragon: yellow and white
  • Snake: tangerine, cyan, and silver
  • Horse: green, blue and red
  • Goat: bright yellow
  • Monkey: white and baby blue
  • Rooster: yellow
  • Dog: yellow, black and grey
  • Pig: yellow, green and black

I guess I had better come up with some orange, black, and blue ensembles: this is supposed to be a lucky year for romance (although, frankly, that combination sounds less like a tiger swimming through a river and more like somebody beat up a crossing guard). This other website says tigers should just wear red, which sounds like better advice (chromatically if not sartorially). The other thing this second website says is that we should buy kumquat trees to decorate our houses. Hmm, it sounds like “big kumquat” might have bribed whoever wrote this.

You can (and should) look up more of these fun and funny New Years suggestions, but right now I am going to go eat some dumplings and citrus fruits. I will write some real posts about tigers later this week. Happy New Year! (In the spirit of Yuan Duan This article was a bit tongue-in-cheek but I was serious about exorcising evil)

虎年大吉! We are going to have a great tiger year and reclaim our lives!

Tiger Flounder Omega

Tiger Flounder (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019) Wood and Mixed Media

Here is another flounder artwork which I just completed.  A majestic Amur Tiger is “hiding” on the pink, purple, and green stripes of a lurking flatfish.  Something which has forcefully struck me about the popular understanding of flatfish is how many people are surprised at what successful predators flatfish are (I guess perhaps people unconsciously thought they were carrion eaters because they live on the ocean bottom?). Anyway, like tigers, flounders lurk in wait, blending in with their surroundings until the perfect moment and then “snap!” they grab up their unsuspecting prey.  Tigers are of course a beloved super charismatic animal which people think about all of the time (although flatfish make up an entire taxonomical order, I get the sense that people who aren’t anglers or ichthyologists don’t think about them quite so much).  Frankly our fascination and love haven’t helped the big cats all that much though: they are rapidly going extinct in the wild due to habitat loss and poaching (mostly for moronic traditional nostrums).  This juxtaposed flounder sculpture hints at the sad fate facing the world’s brilliant animal predators.  It is also a study in the dazzling color and form of stripes!

Rio_2016_mascots

The 2016 Olympics are fast approaching and they have the potential to be all too interesting.  The Brazilian government has been mired in a serious executive political crisis.  The Brazilian economy is melting down. There is a crimewave in Rio AND the beautiful tropical city is at the epicenter of the Zika crisis.  Pundits are predicting disaster, but I am still hopeful that Brazil can pull it off.  My cautious optimism stems partly from love of international sports; partly from the desire to see tropical dance spectaculars featuring samba dancers & bizarre floats; and partly from morbid curiosity.

But before we get to the 2016 Summer Olympics there is business to discuss concerning the 2018 Winter Olympics. Ferrebeekeeper tries to stay abreast of mascots because there is larger symbolic meaning in these cartoonish corporate figureheads.  Behold “Soohorang,” the white tiger mascot of the 2018 Winter Olympics to be held in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

soo

Real tigers are magnificent, stately, adorable, and terrifying–so they make good mascots.  The last Korean Olympics, the Seoul Summer Olympics of 1988 had an orange and black Amur tiger mascot “Hodori” (below) who was pretty endearing. Unfortunately Soohorang is a bit too digitally rendered to look like anything other than the output of a committee and a graphics design team. Hodori

According to the June 2nd press statement at Olympics.org,“In mythology, the white tiger was viewed as a guardian that helped protect the country and its people. The mascot’s colour also evokes its connection to the snow and ice of winter sports.” I guess white tigers are special in Korean and Indian mythology, but in Chinese mythology the white tiger is a monster which symbolically represents the west and death.

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Now that a mascot has been chosen, we can start looking forward to the 2018 winter Olympics in the north of South Korea (somehow the Olympic committee found the one place that is the focus of even more socio-political tension than the Black Sea).  In the mean time the Summer Olympics is fast approaching.  Why not sit back and pour yourself a Cachaça, read about the Brazilian mascot “Vinicius” (pictured at the top of this article, playing on and around a cable car in an unsafe manner) and start preparing for the games.

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Sir Edwin Landseer (1802–1873) was one of the most successful and beloved English artists during the apogee of British power–in fact he was Queen Victoria’s favorite painter.  From a young age, Landseer was a painting prodigy.  He was ambidextrous and it was even said that he could paint with both hands at the same time.  Although he could paint people and landscapes with equal ease, what most endeared Landseer to the Victorian public was his skill at painting the emotions of animals.  Most of his paintings involve the faces and demeanor of dogs and horses–either by themselves or interacting with their owners.  These sentimental paintings of pets and favorite livestock animals made Landseer rich and famous, but there was more to his art than just portraying anthropomorphised creatures.

Isaac van Amburgh and his Animals (Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, 1839, oil on canvas)

In this painting (completed in 1839) Landseer has put aside the spaniels, geldings, and water dogs which were his normal fare in order to address the thin line separating domestication from wildness.  Dressed like Mark Anthony, the American lion-tamer Isaac Van Amburgh reclines in a cage filled with tigers, lions, and leopards.  In his arm is a little lamb (which, hilariously, seems to share Isaac’s expression of languid arrogance).  Although the lion tamer and the sheep are nicely painted, the real subjects of the painting are the great cats which stare at the armored man and the lamb with mixed expressions of wild sly hunger, fear, ingratiating acquiescence, and madness.  Beyond the bars lies the entire panoply of 19th century society.  A mother holds her infant tight as a rich merchant stares into the cage.  A black man in livery turns his head toward a martinet standing beneath the Queen’s flag.  This is not a sanitized scene of dogs playing together:  there are multiple planes of control and subjugation as one proceeds through the levels of the painting.

Portrait of Mr. Van Amburgh, as He Appeared with His Animals at the London Theatres (Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, 1847, oil on canvas)

Landseer found the subject of the lion tamer fascinating and later he painted another painting of Isaac Van Amburgh which shows the great cats cowering and sad.  As ever, the whip-wielding Van Amburgh is dressed as a Roman and is behind bars.  Flowers and laurels lay at the edge of the cage but so do newspapers and detritus.  The huge felines are once again the focus of the painting, but, if possible, they look even more crazed and miserable [unfortunately I could only find a small jpeg of this work—the original is at Yale if you are near New Haven].

There was a dark, scary, & agonized side to Landseer as well.  He had a nervous breakdown in his late thirties and was slowly devoured by insanity in the years thereafter.  In fact during his final decades he sank so deeply into substance abuse and strange bouts of gratuitous cruelty, that his family had him committed to an insane asylum.  Both of these paintings were crafted after Landseer’s initial emotional breakdown.  I wonder if he had noticed that the lion tamer is every bit as cruel and alarming as the beasts he is whipping (and is likewise behind bars). I wonder too if the artist had glimpsed an allegory of apparently genteel Victorian society within these disquieting pictures. But, most of all, I wonder if Landseer had already intimated that he too would end his life in a cage.

A Smilodon fends off the vulture-like Teratornis at what would later be called the Rancho La Brea tar pits, situated in Los Angeles, California (Painting by Charles R. Knight)

Lately this blog has been fixated on magnificent saber-toothed mammals.  We have featured the extinct saber-toothed whale, a saber-toothed marsupial predator, the little saber-toothed deer, and even the familiar walrus (in reality, a giant saber-toothed seal), but we realize that everyone has really been looking forward to the most famous saber-toothed animal of them all, Smilodon, the saber toothed cat.  Smilodon was actually a genus of several large cats, the biggest of which, Smilodon populator, weighed 360 to 470 kg (790 to 1,000 lb) and was larger than modern tigers or lions. In fact Smilodon species are sometimes known as “saber toothed tigers” or “saber toothed lions,” however taxonomists tell us such names are off the mark since the Smilodons belonged to the extinct Machairodontinae genus of felines rather than the familiar Panthera genus of big cats so familiar today.

About two and a half million years ago, Smilodon evolved in North America from an earlier genus of saber toothed cat Megantereon (there were a lot of other earlier genera of saber-toothed cats, not to mention even more genera of saber toothed carnivores which were not exactly felines—the whole story is complicated).  During the Great American Interchange with South America the big predators invaded South America at the same time armadillos were making their way up into North America.  Yikes, that’s a pretty lopsided exchange.

In addition to long razor sharp teeth, Smilodons possessed immense neck and forelimb muscles. Using the muscles of their front torso they would pull down and pin the great grazing metafauna of the American plains.  Prey animals almost certainly included bison, tapirs, deer, American camels, and ground sloths. Additionally Smilodons might have opportunistically killed juvenile mastodons and mammoths. To dispatch such large prey Smilodons employed their fearsome canine teeth with which they bit through the prone creatures’ necks.

Smilodon fatalis (reconstruction/specimen at the Page Museum)

Paleontologists have collected a great deal of fossil evidence concerning Smilodons, which suggest that the big cats were sophisticates social predators like today’s lions or wolves.  The number and nature of saber-toothed cat fossils recovered from tar pits suggests that Smilodon prides would converge together on prey animals caught in the petrochemical ooze–only to become trapped themselves.  Also some fossilized smilodons have shown evidence of badly broken bones healing—a rarity in carnivores which is generally only possible for pack/pride animals which can (sometimes) rely on a support network.

Thanks to their size, ferocious appearance, and highly characteristic teeth, Smilodons have a special place in human culture to the extent that few other extinct animals do.  The Flintstones had a pet smilodon named “Baby Puss” which evicted Fred from his house in the title sequence and the moral struggles of Diego the saber tooth constituted the moral hook of “Ice Age” a cartoon movie. Ironically for all of our apparent fondness for the great cats, it seems that human migration into the Americas may have been the downfall of the great cats (which vanished 10,000 years ago) but whether their extinction was the result of humans overhunting their prey, shifting climate, or some other factor remains an open question.

Smilodon by Knight

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